Historical Perspectives and Context
Over the years, the reports of educational data have been disappointing (D’Alonzo & Boggs, 1990; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2004). Each state is allowed to create its own curricula, and measurement system to track student progress. Each state collects data and produces reports from that data to assure the public that educational standards are held high for every student. Still, a national perspective was needed that held all states to the same standards in order to measure effectiveness of instruction in a systematic manner across the country. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) currently provides the primary measurement standards of our nation’s schools.
The results of the research on student achievement from NAEP and other measures (such as SAT/ACT scores, as well as the increasing numbers of students who were served in special education) influenced the development of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004). Prior to this effort, the law and funding for mainstream education and special education were kept separate. Our nation’s first attempt at connecting these laws and funding streams were met with skepticism due to the increased requirement for accountability. Education requirements particularly in special education had not been previously held to such substantial requirements for accountability.
As NCLB is currently written, all states are required to show that all students, or at least 97%, will be able to pass the state level standardized assessment. This number includes student with disabilities. States are no longer allowed to “exempt” students long-term from their state testing accountability requirements due to disability or limited use of the English language.
Under Margaret Spellings, the Department of Education placed a federal cap on exemptions for students with disabilities as well as for students who are English Language Learners (ELLs) (United States Department of Education, 2006). Students who are newly identified as English Language Learners are allowed three years exemption from state assessments such as TAKS. However, these students are required to participate in the Texas Evaluation of Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS) during their three year exemption. This assures that all students are a part of state accountability systems in one way or another.
As of May 2010, Texas measures its students using the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). For students with disabilities, the schools are required to meet a federal cap of only three percent of a campus’ student population who are able to take a modified or alternative version of this assessment. A campus is allowed to test one percent of their students with the most severe cognitive impairments using an alternative assessment called TAKS-Alternative. The other two percent are allowed to take a modified version of the state assessment which measures the same skills found at enrolled grade level, but with the reading level reduced. This assessment is called TAKS-Modified. The remainder of students with disabilities takes the same standard TAKS assessment as students without disabilities or the TAKS-Accommodated, a form of the TAKS that has a larger print size and no field test items.
As No Child Left Behind began implementation of higher accountability standards for student progress, the total number of students served in special education due to learning disabilities, speech impairments, and behavior began skyrocketing. One can trace this growth in direct relation to the increased demands for academic accountability that the federal government placed on the states. With the increasing demand for student accountability and performance at grade level, the number of students identified with disabilities continued to grow. As the special education rolls began to grow exponentially, analysis of these students revealed that a very large percentage of these students in special education were Hispanic, African American, or students of economic disadvantage (Fletcher et al., 2002; Gresham, 2002; Reschly & Ysseldyke, 2002). Educational research began to question the reason for this phenomenon. Was it all due to the state’s need to exempt students who struggled? Perhaps that was only a piece of the puzzle.
Since the late 1970’s, researchers in psychology began to question the validity of the process to determine eligibility for learning disabilities, speech impairments and emotional disabilities (Lyon et al., 2001). A number of studies illustrated two primary issues in this identification process.
First, when analyzing data to determine the effectiveness of current special education practices, it was very difficult to determine if students with specific learning disabilities (SLD), speech impairments (SI), or emotional behavioral disorders (EBD) had progressed in their development of core academic skills (Lyon et al., 2001; Fletcher et al., 2002; Gresham, 2002; Reschly & Ysseldyke, 2002). For thousands of these students there simply was no evidence that they were receiving the free and appropriate public education (FAPE) that had been promised by federal special education laws (Lyon, et al., 2001; Fletcher et al., 2002; Gresham, 2002; Reschly & Ysseldyke, 2002). The need to demonstrate that these students could read, write and calculate as well as their peers in general classrooms necessitated institution of statewide accountability systems. For the first time in 2000, the educational laws for general education students and the educational laws for students with disabilities were linked through NCLB (Brown-Chidsey & Steege, 2005). This connection between NCLB and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is one that ensures FAPE for all students (Vaughn, Linan-Thompson, & Hickman, 2003).
Second, the process of assessing to determine eligibility is one that is much more complex. While it was somewhat easier to create systems that evaluate the educational outcomes for students with disabilities, the idea of assessment for eligibility for specific learning disabilities, speech impairments and emotional behavioral disorders would prove much harder. In the 1980’s, researchers were already trying to envision a method of assessment for these disabilities that did not have to rely on standardized assessments using intelligent quotient (IQ) as a driving determinant (Reschly & Hosp, 2004; Peterson & Shinn, 2002).
There are two large impediments in determining eligibility. First, is the over-reliance on IQ testing. There has been a general agreement among researchers for decades that IQ tests are riddled with cultural bias. With so many students of color and/or from economically disadvantaged backgrounds being identified with disabilities, a growing concern over the appropriateness of IQ testing as a significant determiner of disability had become apparent (Bradley, Danielson, & Hallahan, 2002). Second, is ensuring that a student’s lack achievement is not due to lack of opportunity. This language has been in the federal law since its inception; however, it is very difficult to determine (Donovan & Cross, 2002).
Alongside and assisting the efforts at special education reform of the 80’s and 90’s, the research on poverty and lack of language development began to emerge (Hart & Risley, 1995). Common sense seemed to dictate that if students came from backgrounds with languages other than English, from minority populations, or from poverty, their abilities and facilities with language and academic skills might be, on average, somewhat lower than more traditional, middle class white students. This realization supported notions of cultural bias inherent in standardized tests. Combining this idea along with the difficult task of determining that a student had, indeed, received quality instruction demanded a new approach for identifying students who have disabilities.
Psychologists had hypothesized the use of procedures similar to RTI using a problem solving model as far back as the 1970's. Known as the consultative model, the original idea came from the work of Bergan in 1977 (Bergan & Kratochwill, 1990). This model focused on systematic methods to intervene using behavior or academic skills delivered through a specific problem solving process. This model used a team/collaborative approach and became the forerunner of what we now call Student Support Teams, Child Study Teams or Student Assistance Teams (Fuchs, Fuchs & Bahr, 1990; Gravois & Rosenfield, 2006).
The results of continuing research by psychologists and other research professionals is enlightening. Research has demonstrated that for many students who struggled with social or academic behavior in classrooms, remediation by specialized instruction in the classroom was just as effective as placing the students in special education. The research also demonstrated that schools with a team of professionals who worked collaboratively had fewer referrals to special education (Lyon et al., 2001). It suggested that diagnosis of disability before a student had received appropriate intervention, and the opportunity to learn from that intervention, was not only misinformed, but potentially biased against the student. This is evidenced by the vast overrepresentation of minority students in special education as first noted by Dunn (1968).
The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has studied prevalence rates for years. Two National Research Councils were set to study the implications (Reschly & Bersoff, 1999; Reynolds, Lowe, & Saenz, 1999). Both panels formulated similar answers: Disproportionality is a problem if individuals from a particular group experience misidentification and labels of disabilities as well as the stigma and lack of access that often coincides with placements in special education. Many attempts to address the disproportionality in special education have failed over the past 30 years including: (a) more stringent special education classification criteria for disability categories, (b) formulating conceptions of nonbiased assessments, (c) provision of more culturally sensitive curricula and instructional practices, and (d) closer examination of characteristics of children from minority backgrounds in special education (Reschly & Bersoff, 1999; Reynolds, Lowe, & Saenz, 1999). Despite these efforts, disproportionality in special education has not improved significantly since 1970 (Donovan & Cross, 2002). States currently dealing with disproportionality must provide U.S. Department of Education with evidence of statewide efforts to lower the prevalence of certain minorities identified in particular disability categories.
In addition to the systematic team approach for delivery of services research being done by Bergan and associates, Dr. Stanley Deno at the University of Minnesota was investigating the effects of adding a layer of assessment, called progress monitoring, onto this team-based system to catch groups of students at elementary grade levels before they fall too far behind (Deno & Mirkin, 1977). This approach could help students who struggle to achieve academically in class, receive interventions based on their target needs in the general education classroom, or in small tutoring groups devoted to bringing the students’ skills up to grade level (Adelman & Taylor, 1999; Donovan & Cross, 2002).
RTI relies heavily on the concept that a team of highly skilled teachers from a variety of perspectives will use problem solving methods and to make quality educational decisions for struggling students (Tilly, 2002). These are commonly referred to as student support teams, and are made up of the teachers who represent general education as well as specialized campus instruction and intervention programs. These teams are to address concerns seen in the general classroom and to find effective methods of intervention so that students can be successful in the mainstream without the need for more expensive and often inappropriate placement in special education. Student support teams are a mainstay of public schools and often the first line of support for students who struggle with behavior issues as well as academics (Tilly, 2002.) These team links the vast instructional expertise of team members with the use of a system of progress monitoring using informal assessments and normative data. The student support teams are important to the success of the RTI process.
This early research has led to the concept of RTI – an educational system that relies less on IQ scores and more on the progress students make with well designed instruction. This means that all students, regardless of socioeconomic standing, ability level or command of the English language, receive instruction that is deemed effective for their specific needs. America’s schools are filled with diversity. A “one-size-fits-all” approach in schools has not given us the assurance that all students will learn and achieve. RTI demands that schools will use scientifically researched methods of instruction to ensure appropriate instruction as well as remediation and assessment.